Hi there, human!
Have you ever gone to ride your horse just in time for a sudden downpour? Or realized that in the gusting wind, leading your horse is more like flying a kite? Maybe you discovered that somebody got carried away during a game of Tooth Tag and now has an oozy bite wound… right where the saddle goes?
When it comes to horses, stuff happens. Hey, we can’t be perfect ALL the time.
In these situations, you might be tempted to pack up and go home. But if you do, you’ll be missing out an excellent opportunity to play with your horse on the ground.
Groundwork is a seriously underrated horsemanship skill
Like many things in the horse world, everyone has their own idea of how to do it.
Groundwork could include working in hand, teaching tricks, playing at liberty, practicing conditioning exercises, or even just going on a long walk with your horse.
You might have a specific goal, or you might just want some spontaneous pony play time.
However you interpret it, there are five great reasons to learn to interact with your horse from the ground:
#1 - You don’t need a lot of time or equipment
You can have fun, successful groundwork sessions that last just five minutes. Short and sweet is actually better when you are teaching a new skill! This can be really helpful this time of year when it gets dark early and the holidays keep you hopping.
Horses like consistency – we’d much rather see you for a few minutes every day than have a marathon session once a week.
And while adding obstacles to your groundwork can be fun, and you may want some tools for specialized training, you don’t really need anything other than a halter and lead rope.
Groundwork can be practiced in a barn aisle, in your horse’s stall, in a paddock or a corner of the arena — wherever you have a horse-safe space.
#2 - You don’t need the weather to be on your side
A lot of groundwork exercises can be practiced at the halt or the walk, so you can still do them safely even if you’ve got the bad-footing blues. If it’s raining, you can stay under the barn roof.
If it’s 100° F outside, you don’t have to change out of your shorts and tank top! If it’s freezing cold, you can bundle up in tons of puffy layers and stay warm by moving around next to me.
Just remember that dance partners step on each other sometimes, and wear horse-safe boots in case I accidentally squash your toes.
#3 - You can make your horse’s life easier by improving his mind and body
No matter how carefully you try to train your horse, there will be times where he gets frustrated – either because he doesn’t understand what you’re asking him to do, or he doesn’t feel like it’s possible to do it.
Groundwork allows you to simplify tasks and teach him new moves without the burden of a rider on his back.
This can be particularly helpful if you’re learning a new skill together, or if you find it difficult to ride in balance and give him clear signals.
If you’re really clever, you can build your horse’s confidence and his physical strength at the same time.
I used to find it hard to move sideways under saddle, but after months of practicing that skill with my Girl on the ground, I realized I could sidepass all over the arena with ease
#4 - You’re going to be humbled by how much there is to learn
If you’re like most students I teach to play on the ground, you’re going to be really bad at it at first.
You might wander around the arena, lost and purposeless, with a bored horse trailing behind you. You might try that fancy Yo-Yo game you’ve seen other people play, only to find yourself on the losing end of a staring contest. You might triumphantly remove your horse’s halter for a bit of liberty – and watch him make a beeline for the nearest patch of grass, shaking you off like a fly.
And hey, guess what, that’s great! Being bad at something is much better than never trying it. It means you’re beginning a new journey, and you’re about to learn a lot.
Practicing groundwork can give you an education in equine body language, learning theory and psychology, posture, timing and intention.
You’ll have plenty of mental puzzles to solve and opportunities to Level Up your emotional control.
Your horse will give plenty of feedback, if you listen. And since you use all of those skills in the saddle, groundwork will make you a better rider in the long run.
#5 - You might just start to have a little fun
Riding can be great, don’t get me wrong. I love it when I get in sync with a human and we’re galloping through poles or leaping over logs in harmony.
But if you’re not careful, riding can become more about you than us.
Groundwork works best when you get in touch with your playful, curious side. Instead of asking, “What can my horse do for me,” ask yourself, “What can I do for him? What can we learn together?”
This attitude, along with lots of fresh and interesting puzzles to solve, gets me excited about our time together. (Especially if I know I’m going to get to eat yummy cookies! Just make sure to read my blog post about taming your Cookie Monster first.)
So you want to become great at groundwork, but you don’t know where to start?
Then be sure to check out the shiny new horsemanship challenge my humans are hosting in 2021.
Each task is designed to give you a mini-goal for some fun, focused pony time – and keep you connected with other horse friends even if you’re stuck at home.
You can do the challenges in the saddle or on the ground. If you’re feeling fancy, try them both ways and see how it goes!
Looks like a FUN way to play with your pony, doesn’t it?
See all about it on the official #StayatHomeHorsemanship page.
All work and no play makes Heaven a dull pony!
As I get older and find it harder to gallop and jump, I’m glad my humans are willing to spend quality time with me on the ground – and that they can experience all our partnership has to offer.